The Power of Gratitude

As our country continues to deal with the effects of a global pandemic and the subsequent economic stress, political turmoil, and a myriad of other distressing conditions, it may be difficult to think about being grateful. However, November is National Gratitude Month. And turning our thoughts to gratitude has a multitude of health advantages—including improved mental health and even life-saving benefits.

According to researchers and psychologists, gratitude can enhance moods, decrease stress, and drastically improve one’s overall level of health and well-being. On average, grateful people tend to have fewer stress-related illnesses and to experience lowered blood pressure and less depression.

At the risk of oversimplifying, life can be considered difficult or easy; it all depends on our perspective. After all, so much of life depends on how we approach it. Even at its darkest moments, life is full of possibility. For many of us, our logic minds will confirm that truth. However, one in five people suffers from depression, and according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.

Author Matt Haig is one of those who suffers from depression, and he is very outspoken about mental health. He once wrote the Tweet: “Suicide is not selfish. Suicide is, normally, death caused by the illness of depression. It is the final symptom. A final collapse under unbearable weight. Suicide is a tragedy. If you have never been close to that edge, try not to judge what you can’t understand.”

Not only a presence on Twitter, Haig has also written blogs and is the author of Reasons to Stay Alive (Penguin Books, 2015), which is a resource for individuals who feel like they can no longer live with anxiety and depression.

In this memoir, Haig explains that everyone’s life is touched by mental illness. If we do not suffer from it ourselves, then we have a friend or loved one who does. Haig’s candor about his experiences is both inspiring to those who feel daunted by depression and illuminating to those who are mystified by it. Above all, his humor and encouragement never allow readers to lose sight of hope. Speaking as his present self to his former self in the depths of depression, Haig reminds himself and his readers that there are always reasons to stay alive, that one day we will experience joy that matches the pain of depression. 

Comparing depression to a hurricane, Haig also outlines how a mind has its own weather system and points out that even hurricanes run out of energy eventually.  He further reminds us not to worry about labels and to ignore stigma.  After all, depression is not a weakness or a personality failure; it’s an illness.

When the Montana Department of Health and Human Services released a report in January 2021 on the facts and figures of suicide in Montana, Karl Rosston, Suicide Prevention Coordinator, documented stigma surrounding mental illness as a profound barrier to seeking help. Calling suicide “a cultural issue” in Montana, the report suggests that Montanans are often raised to “be tough” and to keep their struggles behind closed doors. Stigmas such as these silence many Montanans, who resist reaching out.

“Montanans see depression as a weakness and their problems as a burden. If you think that you’re a burden, how likely are you to ask for help?” Rosston asks.

 Because of this stigma, those who suffer from depression often find ways to mask their illness. Sometimes the people that appear happiest or funniest or friendliest on the outside are struggling the most on the inside.

A creative writer might compare depression to a terrible beast that pulls us to the lowest depths, entangling us and keeping us down to the point it feels like we will never overcome its grasp. The isolation. The weight that won’t lift. The pressure. The darkness. The feeling of being underwater and unable to surface. Drowning. Even when you escape its grasp, its lurk is ever-present, waiting for the right conditions to surface to pull you back down.

Those who have had past battles with or are currently fighting this monster, need to pay attention to the lifelines that are thrown to them and hold on tightly, to sever the tentacles of the monster, and to make it back to where they can breathe freely.

One simple lifeline is to keep a gratitude journal; another is to make joy lists, and to look for the good amid the daily grind. Pursue a passion, seek out positive people, listen to joyous music, and create opportunities for laughter. Since this topic is one on which psychologists have written books, these suggestions only touch on the subject of finding rays of light in the darkness. In that search, we all know the stress relieving power of a good belly laugh. We couldn’t survive without humor. There is something about humans that makes us want to laugh when logically we should cry—sometimes we employ humor to avoid unsettling other people with our misery. Acting as an elixir against disaster, wise cracks protect us when our worlds are falling apart. That’s why we tell jokes at a eulogy or about a serious medical condition; laughter can restore both normalcy and hope in the face of tragedy. Pain leeches the color from life, but laughter is a healing song; we laugh when we don’t want to hurt.

While laughter and engaging in simple, daily pleasures that bring joy are starting points, we also need to end the silence around mental health. People need community and wounds need attention. Silence rarely applies a protective coating to pain. If we talk about the source of pain, we can often get past it and learn from it. We may never “get over it,” but we can adapt, grow scar tissue, and keep going.

Gratitude is an important tool for helping us cope. Studies show that a conscious and consistent effort to find gratitude, whether through journaling, reading, or verbal expression, can actually improve mental health and perhaps even change our brains to recognize gratitude more often. 

Poet Mary Oliver invites us to attend to the little things that call to us and evoke a sense of gratitude. Her poetry helps cultivate an appreciation for beauty and intention. In one particularly relevant line, she writes: “It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.”

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